Friday, November 06, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Greatest Threat to Faith Today

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Writer Andrew Sullivan gives this advice to churches:

“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary.”

Tom: “The greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction.” What do you think, IC? Is technology dangerous to Christians?

The Big Game-Changer

Immanuel Can: Well, all the research shows that what Sullivan is saying is basically correct. Love it or hate it, one thing is most certainly true about the Internet: it’s changing how people think and relate, and doing it on many levels. I’ve seen that it’s a big game-changer in things like education and politics. It can be no surprise if it has an impact on church. But what would that impact be?

Tom: Well, Sullivan describes two extremes: Catholic mystical meditation and a church service that’s basically a zoo; the former being desirable to him, and the latter being what he views as a great threat. So he’s a little colorful in laying it out, but he’s not wrong about this: Christians have forgotten how to sit still and think about God. We just don’t do it anymore.

IC: Yes, that’s very true. It’s a product of what’s called “neuroplasticity”. Brain research has recently shown that the human brain actually restructures itself to do whatever activity a person is doing most. So if one spends a lot of time on math, say, one eventually develops a physical brain structure that makes those neural pathways that conduce to math stronger and quicker. When one is performing language-based activities all the time, the brain progressively restructures to do that faster. It all depends on what one is doing a lot of.

Me and My WP

Tom: To illustrate the impact of technology on more than the end product, I’ve noticed a huge shift in how my own brain functions since moving to doing all my writing in a word processor. When I had to write essays in longhand at school, the idea always came first, followed by lots of research and mental processing, followed by composing an introduction, three main points and a conclusion. Most of this happened in my head rather than in draft form on paper.

Technology changed all that. Once in a blue moon an actual thesis comes first, but most of the time research is the starting point, whether it’s biblical or factual. Then I type a whole bunch of data into a word file and try to word it snappily, and finally I figure out what I’m writing about at the end and save the whole thing from utter pointlessness at the edit stage (or don’t, as the case may be). I may end up deleting three quarters of what I’d originally written if it doesn’t matter to my main point. Basically, ease of editing in WP has made me work through my ideas in a completely different way. I write differently because I think differently about writing.

But my real point is this: the shift in the way I write and think happened unconsciously over time. I didn’t set out to change my method; it happened TO me. It’s only in retrospect that I even realized what had occurred.

And I think something similar is happening to the church.

The Impact of Tech on the Church

IC: What would you take for an indicator that this is having an impact on the church?

Tom: Technology is changing people. You’ve probably read a whole lot more about that from a social perspective than I have. I just have my own entirely anecdotal observations that society around me is changing. My Christian friends are different. I can’t get through a restaurant meal without somebody texting or receiving multiple texts, and often I’m the guilty party. Christians in the back row of a Bible study may be seen discreetly checking messages on their cell phones and tablets, or stepping out of a meeting to answer a call. And fewer and fewer groups of believers are worshiping weekly. What is currently called “worship” is more like Sullivan’s “emotional spasms” than anything I grew up with.

IC: Yes, that’s the very biggest — and most spiritually significant — change I see. People have no idea of how to worship anymore. They think “worship” means an entertainment program or a slate of singing, announcements and a message. The idea of sitting still and considering the greatness of God, or meditating on the worth of Christ is just something for which they have no patience at all.

Tom: Amen.

Little Said, Less Understood

IC: As an indicator of this, I note that when I was growing up it was routine for certain conservative, evangelical churches to have an hour-long service commemorating nothing but the person and work of Christ, and culminating in the memorial of the bread and wine. That was every Sunday, regular as clockwork.

Tom: I remember.

IC: Then, when I was a young adult, many congregations went to a once-a-month format for that. In my adult years, it was fifteen minutes apologetically tacked on to a regular preaching service, hastily executed by a professional clergyman. Now my local church is unlikely to do ten minutes of tightly scripted, routine stuff, followed by as quick a bread-and-wine sharing as can be managed. Little is said, and less is understood. Nobody really seems to have the faintest idea what they’re doing (least of all the guy at the front) or why it would be worth spending more than ten minutes a month doing it.

For shame. But it’s to be expected nowadays ...

Tom: That’s what I’m talking about right there. How is it that a gay Catholic picks up on this, and many who ought to have been better taught are thoroughly oblivious?

You Say You Want a Revolution …

IC: We trust technology. We’ve been told it’s always “advanced” or “better”, and that anyone who questions it or — heaven forbid — holds back on it is regressive or stupid. We don’t think it can harm us, and we think we’re totally capable of handling whatever it does. New is the future; old is dead.

Tom: That’s entirely normal for our species. The Industrial Revolution remade society. There was some squawking, but people got with the program, as we tend to do. Our world today is completely different from the pre-industrial, agrarian model. Many of those differences are huge negatives, but there’s no turning back the clock. The Sexual Revolution, same thing. The Pill becomes available in 1960 and by the end of that decade you’ve had a complete moral and ethical upheaval in society that continues today. That’s technology. Its effects are not neutral.

And the thing is, very few people are able to accurately forecast how far-reaching the impact of any given technological change will be. I do not think we fully understand what portable computing and the Internet are doing to us. They are changing us socially, they influence character, their demands force out other important activities by the boatload, they put stresses on marriage and parent-child relationships that didn’t exist two decades ago. But there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle, is there.

Civilization and Its Discontents

IC: No. And ironically, it was no Christian but rather the atheist Sigmund Freud who pointed this out long ago, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). We think we know what technology will do because we invent it with a specific purpose in mind; but then it goes its own way. The Internet is a good example. It was invented for military, medical and scholarly exchange — now, you be the judge of whether that has turned out to be its real major use.

Tom: Yeah, point taken.

IC: You see? We just don’t know. So very often we have to judge its effects after it arrives; we cannot safely just allow it to do anything, and we cannot assume that just because it’s new and here we have to accept it as a part of our lives … not if we’re Christians.

No Worthless Thing

I was reading this passage this morning:
“I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart.

I will set no worthless thing before my eyes;
I hate the work of those who fall away;
It shall not fasten its grip on me.

A perverse heart shall depart from me;
I will know no evil.”
Tom: Yeah, when he speaks of knowing no evil, he’s not talking about being naive. He’s talking about making a choice.

IC: That’s a powerful resolution that is very relevant to where the Internet takes us today. We have to be deliberate here about what we allow technology to do to us … and not just at home, but at church too, as you have been saying. But let’s continue that thought. Any ideas about what we can do to restore meditation and worship?

Cultivating Worship

Tom: Well, that passage is relevant, isn’t it. Worship is something we choose to do. It’s not a state of mind that catches us unaware. It’s a state of mind that we have to cultivate, and there’s no shortcut to that. There’s no five-minute clip on YouTube to sort us out worship-wise. To know God is to invest uninterrupted time in contemplating his word, and to do that requires putting the toys away. There’s no other way.

IC: Absolutely. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

Tom: I play a lot of Facebook Scrabble, but I sure don’t do it when I’m praying or reading or writing or researching. And most of the time I don’t answer text messages or pick up the phone when I’m doing those things. It’s all well and good to say, “That’s a generational thing”. That’s totally true. But if this coming generation doesn’t cultivate some of these same habits and take the time it takes to begin to really know God, we are going to have a godless generation.

Worship and Opportunity

IC: Okay, that’s on the personal level: make the choice and commitment to godly habits like reading and prayer. What about the church?

Tom: Well, what I’m suggesting equips the individual to worship. You can’t worship without spiritual fuel in the tank, and you can’t develop good corporate habits in the absence of good personal habits. But you’re right, corporate worship requires other things, and opportunity might be the foremost among those. If your church is full of Sullivan’s “emotional spasms, light and noise” — in other words, if it’s non-stop organized performance down to the last detail — then individuals in that church may have the disposition for worship and even be fully equipped to do it, but lack any opportunity to give voice to what’s inside them.

IC: Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. To borrow a scriptural phrase, a lot of aimless noise and entertainment can really “hinder meditation before God”. There need to be times of quietness, reflection and opportunity, and moments not controlled by the scheduling skills of some sort of “worship leader” or clergyman.

Tom: Does that about cover it?

IC: Well, all I’d say that’s left to say is: Be deliberate. Left to chance, technology will rule and dictate both our private lives and the shape of life in the local church as well. If we’re serious about the stewardship of our lives and churches, we’ve got to be conscious of the threat to them that today’s information technologies pose, and alert to our alternatives.


  1. This might be relevant regarding this topic.

    Russell D. Moore presents the 29th annual Erasmus Lecture in New York, streamed LIVE on Facebook to your favorite device.

    Can the Religious Right Be Saved?

    presented by
    Russell D. Moore

    President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
    of the Southern Baptist Convention

    1. Hey Q! How have you been?

      Considering the astonishing level of blocking, shadowbanning and outright censorship that Facebook is currently engaging in as they attempt to thwart the Trump campaign, I'm curious how far they are prepared to go on a regular basis in the interests of supporting their leftist agenda. Evidently they're not after the Baptists yet. Will check this out. Thanks.

    2. I have been well, thank you, and hope the same is the case for you and IC. Have taken a bit of an hiatus since I had the feeling I was at a point where I just kept repeating myself.

      I generally don't do much with Facebook even though I have an account there. Part of the reason is that I read about a study that found Facebook users to be highly narcissistic compared to nonusers :-). In any case, I think that this talk will also be available outside of Facebook.

    3. Facebook users are narcissistic? I'm so surprised that you could knock me over with a feather! ;)

  2. Wow, did I accidentally (or deliberately :-) hit a Facebook sore spot? Or do you mean this does not come as a surprise for you? But, no worry, I know for sure that you are not a lightweight, IC. As a matter of fact, if you are on Facebook I suspect it is probably in a clandestine, undercover role to at least save some souls over there. And even if it's one, it is certainly worth it!

    Here is one article concerning narcissism on Facebook.

    1. IC would not go near Facebook with a pail of bleach. Maybe a nuclear warhead.

    2. I stay off the Facebook sites (It's an ethically and practically good idea, in my profession), but also confess to having a complete lack of interest in everything I've ever seen on any of them.

      However, I do occasionally hang around on philosophy sites, just to get a chance to talk to people and to hear what they think.

      Basically, Tom's right about Facebook, though. I'd rather have the inside of my thighs sandpapered.